Boris Johnson says the government has a “duty” to help London’s black cab drivers in the face of competition from Uber, rather than simply leave them at the mercy of the free market.
Speaking at the City Lab London conference on Monday, the Mayor of London signalled that he would do his best to help black cab drivers, who have been locked in a bitter battle with Uber since it launched in London in 2012.
Johnson said: “Since the days of Oliver Cromwell the Hackney Carriage has been regulated by government. If the state is going to do that then I think it has a duty to manage that transition [the rise of Uber].”
“The fundamental distinction between a black cab and a minicab has been obliterated by technology. It’s unfair on the black cabs who have consecrated their lives to the study of routes and have special vehicles. In return for that expenditure they have been told that they alone can ply for jobs on the streets.”
Black cab drivers must pass a notoriously difficult test known as the “knowledge” that requires them to commit London’s entire road system to memory. The built-in satnav in Uber’s app effectively destroys this traditional advantage.
And, most aggravating to black cab drivers, the app allows people to effectively “hail” a minicab on the street through the app, rather than book through a central office over the phone. By law, black cab drivers are meant to be the only people who can pick up jobs on the street.
Uber also undercuts traditional operators on price, in part through controversial tax arrangements.
Johnson said: “The question is, how do you strike a balance that respects what’s happened to the cab drivers and tries to help them where you can, but also reflects the fact that technology is out there? You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. I think there are more than a million people in London who now have the app.”
It seems like a pretty spectacular u-turn from last month when the Mayor of London dubbed black cab drivers “Luddites” for their position on Uber.
Johnson and regulator Transport for London (TfL) have been accused by black cab drivers of being too lenient on Uber and favouring the service. Black cab drivers recently had to be ejected from City Hall by police following anti-Uber protests and blockaded the roads outside.
Uber won a crucial legal battle against its enemies last week after its app was ruled not to be a taximeter. Black cab drivers claimed the Uber smartphone app should be illegal because it calculates fares like a taximeter. By law, only black cabs can have taximeters installed.
Johnson signalled that the laws governing the cab industry need reforming, saying: “I’m striking a balance. What we’ve got is a law that is archaic and not fit for a world in which you can hail a minicab without the minicab even seeing you. You can just push a button on your Uber app.
“That to my mind is as good as hailing it and seeing it. However, that’s not what the law says. It says in order to hail a cab you’ve got to see it and stand out in the street.”
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